Spring break

Okay, so it's not quite like this yet (Jamaica Plain, Boston; photo by DY)

Okay, so it’s not quite like this here yet (my ‘hood, Jamaica Plain, Boston; photo by DY)

This week I am solemnly observing that annual academic ritual known as spring break. Okay, so it’s not yet spring, and the weather is hardly like the early June photo I’ve pasted into this post. But I’m not complaining in the least. This has been a welcomed opportunity to play what we sports fans like to call catch-up ball.

For an academician, much of that game is played on the keyboard. I spent the weekend giving feedback on student paper descriptions and drafts, a process that looked fairly quick from a distance but then took up more time than anticipated once I started getting my head into the topics they’re writing about. Now I’m attending to revisions/edits of two law review articles, some back and forth with contributing authors for a book project I’m co-editing, and various stages of work on non-profit and advocacy initiatives. Those activities, plus a cluster of phone conferences and planning for speaking appearances later this spring will eat up much of the week.

This semester has been unexpectedly demanding because of some internal committee responsibilities that have eaten up gobs of time. I’m on my law school’s faculty executive committee, which is a fancy name for a small group of faculty who give feedback to the dean and bring topics to the full faculty for discussion and deliberation. This is at once an opportunity and a burden, the latter due to the proclivity of academic institutions and their denizens to belabor points to excess. In this case, the matters at hand could not be ignored or put off, and they became somewhat consuming.

So perhaps “spring break” is something of a misnomer. But all is not lost in terms of pure fun. Yesterday evening I went to my weekly singing class and did a decent rendition of “Bali Hai,” an iconic song from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” This evening I’m joining some of my voice class friends for an open mic/cabaret night. As I’ve written on my personal blog, singing has become a favorite activity and a therapeutic outlet for me. This hobby is an especially blessed one given that the subject matter of my research, writing, and public education work often focuses on the dark sides of our workplaces. It’s nice to get away and to sing a few bars about something totally unrelated, in the company of good friends.

Work-life balance in academe? Meh…

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36).

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36)

I chuckled a bit while reading this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on work-life balance by English professor Scott Warnock (Drexel U.). At his university’s orientation program for new faculty, he staffed a table where new colleagues could talk to him about work-life balance. Alas, there were no takers. Reflecting on his lonely experience, he acknowledged that work-life balance is simply not a popular topic for academicians, sometimes at a cost:

Unlike many professions, academic life is indeed a life. It’s a calling, an essential part of you. You’ll live it for much of your waking (and, sometimes, sleeping) hours. That’s the good and bad of it. It’s not drudgery and meaninglessness. But it can eat you up. And academics are often not the kind of people who would admit that.

A university teaching career can be a wonderful blessing for anyone who enjoys the core professorial activities of teaching, scholarship, and service. This is especially so if one is fortunate to secure a tenure-track position and earn the brass ring of tenure.

However, today’s academic workplace can be a stressed out and challenging environment. As I wrote two years ago, mental health is one of the most neglected concerns in the academic workplace. In its worst manifestations, higher education can be a petri dish for horrific bullying and mobbing behaviors.

I am fortunate to be doing the work I do, but I’ve also witnessed and experienced the nasty sides of the academic workplace. On the question of work-life balance, I can attest that Prof. Warnock’s observations are wise and insightful. An academic career is truly a way of life in addition to a vocation, and that reality can bring its share of ups and downs. For me, there have been more of the former than the latter, and for that I am very grateful.

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I’ve shared Samuel Morse’s allegorical landscape here before. Morse was an inventor (yes, Morse Code) and artist who taught at New York University during its earliest years. In this painting, he used NYU’s original Gothic-style building on Washington Square — alas, since torn down and replaced by a much more pedestrian structure — to represent the idea of the university as paradise. Even in my most cynical moments as an academician, I find this landscape enormously appealing.

Are you feelin’ the telepressure?

The other day, when I was in one of those half-asleep modes where your mind goes on a weird walk or two, I had an irrational fear: Will I ever be able to escape my e-mail inbox, or will it be with me always, wherever I go, no matter what I’m doing? I mean, what if I’m on vacation, sitting before the ocean, having to spend all my time typing furiously on my iPad responding to e-mails about work?

Okay, I’m not really into sitting at beaches anyway, but maybe my fears aren’t so irrational. In fact, my half-dream reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about telepressure, a term defined by Northern Illinois University (NIU) organizational psychologists Larissa Barber and Alecia Santuzzi as  “an urge to quickly respond to emails, texts and voicemails – regardless of whatever else is happening or whether one is even ‘at work.'”

In a feature posted by NIU, Dr. Barber — lead author (with Dr. Santuzzi) of a 2014 study on telepressure — explains what this means for our everyday lives:

“Workers who indicate they feel high levels of telepressure are more likely to report burnout, a feeling of being unfocused, health-related absenteeism and diminished sleep quality,” says NIU psychology professor Larissa Barber, lead author of a new study on workplace telepressure and its implications, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

“Over the past few decades, we’ve seen organizations increasingly rely on email or text messages for conducting business,” Barber says. “The main benefit is that employees have lots of flexibility about when they can work, including at home.

“But this flexibility can sometimes have unintended costs,” she adds. “Employees start to feel like they should be available and responsive to work requests at all times. This type of continuous connection does not allow people enough time to recover from work.”

So…does this resonate with you? If you want to learn more, Drs. Barber and Santuzzi discuss the ramifications of telepressure in this snappy two-minute video:

Blessed are the caregivers

Several months ago, after settling into my seat for a plane flight, I looked up the aisle and noticed a physically slight older woman lugging along a large man, and he was basically leaning on her back as they moved forward. She led him to their seats and attended to his seatbelt. Later, when he had to use the restroom, she helped him to get up, and once again he leaned on her back as they made their way to the front of the plane.

The man appeared to be severely developmentally disabled, and she was his caregiver, probably his mom. In her eyes I saw what I can only describe as a tired yet peaceful sense of devotion and acceptance.

It so happened that I was traveling that day to visit a dear friend who is caring for her father who has Alzheimer’s. Because of her selflessness, this good man is living comfortably at home, enjoying his favorite meals, watching football games, and having someone tuck him into bed every night with a hug.

Every day and night, millions of people around the world are rendering emotionally and physically demanding labor without pay, serving as caregivers to loved ones with illnesses or disabilities. It is hard work that tugs at the heartstrings. Oftentimes it is a manifestation of pure love and commitment.

34 million

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 34 million people are serving as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. Here are a few key facts and figures:

  • “An estimated 21% of households in the United States are impacted by caregiving responsibilities (NAC, 2004).”
  • “Unpaid caregivers provide an estimated 90% of the long-term care (IOM, 2008).”
  • “Caregivers report having difficulty finding time for one’s self (35%), managing emotional and physical stress (29%), and balancing work and family responsibilities (29%) (NAC, 2004).”
  • “About 73% of surveyed caregivers said praying helps them cope with caregiving stress, 61% said that they talk with or seek advice from friends or relatives, and 44% read about caregiving in books or other materials (NAC, 2004).”

Furthermore, caregiving is a very gendered role, with women bearing the heaviest proportion of these responsibilities. Often they are doing so while sacrificing opportunities to pursue careers and engage in income-producing work.

A preview of the future

As I read about the challenges we face with an aging population, among the emerging points of clarity is that our ability to keep people alive has far outstripped our current resources and systems to provide affordable, dignified long-term care to those who need it, especially without exhausting their caregivers.

This reality dovetails with projections of sharply increasing numbers of people needing such help, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other disabling conditions.

We must reorient our priorities if we are to avoid the specter of an aging population withering away in terrible living conditions and lacking dignified care, with burned out caregivers trying to fill the many voids. This will include controlling the costs of respite and long-term care, while at the same time offering living wages to health care attendants and providing financial support for those who take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities.

In an era of limited financial resources for the vast majority of the population, this will not be easy. It will require, among other things, that we rethink what is important in our lives and for our society.

Unsung heroes

Anyway, the main purpose of this piece is not to engage in a public policy discussion, as necessary as it happens to be. Rather, it is to recognize that caregivers are among the unsung heroes of our everyday lives. They are doing work of a higher order, and they deserve our praise, thanks, and support.

Roundup: On legacy work, transitions, and the march of time

Dear readers, I’ve brought together some past articles that highlight themes of legacy work, personal transitions, and the benefits and challenges of growing older. Many of these pieces discuss books that may be of value to those who want to drill deeper into the subjects. I’ve included snippets from the original posts to give you a sense of each, and you can click on the titles to read the full articles. Especially for those of you who are both reflecting on the past and contemplating changes for the future, I hope they will be of interest!

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?) (2011)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world? This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts . . . , Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010). . . . Guillebeau poses two simple questions: “What do you really want to get out of life?” “What can you offer the world that no one else can?” . . . In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009) . . .. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future.

What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one? (2012)

What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life? . . . I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. . . . Judging from The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and may cause discomfort, as he was not one to pull punches.

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)” . . . Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.

What will be your body of work? (2009)

We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player. . . . But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes. It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture our contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life” (2011)

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something? As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

A lot of people who find their way to this blog are in transitional stages of their work lives, often because of bad experiences at a current or previous job. Some are contemplating a change of employers or even vocations. What’s next? Concrete stuff like finances and living expenses obviously come into play, and the practical challenges of paying the bills may compete with attempts to engage in big picture thinking about one’s life. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid looking inward, in some cases digging deep to turn a setback into an opportunity to consider and create options. For those in this position, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful.

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

Charles D. Hayes, is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics. He recently posted to his September University blog a superb essay, “Nostalgia: Why the Past Matters” . . . , in which he makes the case for returning to and understanding our past in constructive ways, rather than with mere soggy sentiment. . . .  As one enters middle age, it’s natural to resist any mental associations with aging — and that resistance may extend to reading reflective advice for “older folks.” However, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is to welcome the wisdom of those who have been on this planet a little longer than me. Charles Hayes writes mainly for those we might call “seniors,” but his potentially larger audience includes anyone who wants to pursue a life of meaning and authenticity.

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Recycling: Five years of June

With some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

June 2013: What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? — Taking issue with the notion that there’s a prototypical bullying target.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

June 2012: Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts — More of my case for a liberal arts education.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.

June 2011: The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation — Cutting-edge research and analysis on workplace bullying, by and large, has come from academe’s grassroots rather Ivy-type institutions.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

June 2010: The good vacation and why it matters — Americans would benefit by being able to take more genuine vacation time.

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously? At least for Americans, the answer is yes. We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right. Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided. It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done. Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

June 2009: The Tyranny of Word: How Microsoft Hurts Office Productivity — When features of popular word processing software change with each new edition, the primary impact is more time sucked into learning the changes, not greater productivity.

The best word processing program ever developed, in my opinion, was WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, released in 1989. It was fast and clean, with lots of bells & whistles for its day. Once you learned how the function keys operated, you could fly through a document as fast as your fingers could type. In terms of document formatting, it did what you wanted it to, rather than what some control freak programmer assumed you wanted it to do.

Recycling: Five years of Mays

Dear readers, with some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, on a monthly basis I’m going to reach into the archives to highlight a piece from the corresponding month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they will provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

May 2013: Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

…Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

May 2012: Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

…Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots….

…In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

May 2011: What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently….

May 2010: Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this….

May 2009: Star Trek: To bold embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing. The officers and crew live where they work. There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera. Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.

 

 

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